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Beck: Brownie

Smart phones are omnipresent, communication today is instantaneous and global. My grandchildren can’t conceive of a party line or the fact that in the early days of the 20th century, many people didn’t have phones.

Ernest Potvin of Montgomery, VT often used his dog, Brownie as his instant messenger. During the depression he lived in his camp, hunting with his beagle for game to put food on his table. If he wanted to send a message to a neighboring family who did not have a phone, and who perhaps lived a mile away, he would write a note, attach it to Brownie’s collar and tell his dog, “Take it down to Uncle George,” and off Brownie would go, returning within the hour with an answer, and often with a donut that he thought was for Ernest, and wouldn’t put a mark on it until Ernest told the dog that it was for him.

Brownie was well known in the community and Ernest would often loan him out to a friend who was going bird or rabbit hunting. One night Ernest had been down in the village, and when he was ready to go to camp, his friend was still out hunting. Don’t worry, Ernest told his friend’s wife, when I get back to camp I’ll call you and tell Brownie to come up to camp. Around 6:30 that night, true to his word, Ernest called up. Brownie was back and Ernest told his friends to hold Brownie up close to the phone. At first Brownie didn’t understand, but when he heard Ernest’s voice, he bowowed in acknowledgement. “Brownie, come to camp,” Ernest told him. Quick as a flash, Brownie was down, scratching at the door to go out.

As often happened in those days, the operator was listening on the line. “I don’t believe this,” she said. “Call me when he gets to camp.” Camp was seven miles away bit it took the beagle just half an hour to cover the distance. When he reached the camp, Earnest called up the operator. “Brownie’s here,” he told her. “Listen to this. Brownie will talk to you. Speak Brownie.” “Whoooo.”

“Now do you believe me?” he asked.

“Guess I got to believe this!” was the reply.

Jane Beck is the founder of the Vermont Folklife Center.
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